Open XML approval means ODF competion, coexistence

Ecma's vote could encourage users and vendors to support both OpenDocument and Open XML formats

Microsoft's Office Open XML file format won approval from the Ecma International standards body last week, giving it needed credibility as a rival to the OpenDocument format. But Ecma's vote could also make it easier for users and vendors to justify supporting both formats.

"This doesn't make us want to go back to Office, [but] it encourages us to use both formats," said Danny J. Wall, a network engineer at Health First in Florida, U.S.

For the past two years, Health First has been slowly shifting its 5,000 desktop users from Office 97 to OpenOffice.org, an open-source application suite. Using OpenOffice is reducing the health care provider's costs and has required less retraining of employees than upgrading to Office 2003 would have, Wall said.

By default, OpenOffice stores files in the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or ODF. But it can also import and export files in earlier versions of Microsoft's Office formats. Because most of Health First's files are still in Microsoft formats, and in recognition of Office's continued dominance at other companies, Wall said he doesn't strong-arm employees to start saving files in ODF.

As a result, he said, "nobody says 'we just can't use OpenOffice,' because we don't force it on anyone."

Dave Jenkins, chief technology officer at Backcountry.com, an online retailer in Utah, U.S., said he wasn't very impressed by Open XML's adoption as an Ecma standard. "In the long run, I think everyone will go to XML, but I don't think they'll go to Microsoft's XML," he said. "If something is going to be open, it has to be all the way open."

Backcountry.com runs OpenOffice on top of Ubuntu Linux on about two-thirds of its 300 PCs, saving US$250 per system annually compared with the cost of its machines that still have Windows XP and Office 2000 setups, according to Jenkins.

But that doesn't mean Backcountry.com has turned its back on Microsoft's formats. Jenkins has set OpenOffice so that files are automatically saved in Office formats. He said he would prefer to use ODF but adopted what he described as a pragmatic approach to minimize "yelling and screaming" about incompatible file formats.

In Massachusetts, where the state's Information Technology Division made a controversial decision to adopt ODF as a standard file format last year, the official response to Ecma's vote on Open XML was noncommittal but open.

"Microsoft's decision to bring their new software format to an international standards body and [Ecma's] vote validate our efforts to adopt open standards," acting Massachusetts CIO Bethann Pepoli wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

Pepoli added that the IT division will review the standards work done by Ecma's Open XML committee and will consider including the format in the next version of the state's Enterprise Technical Reference Model blueprint. Work on the revision "is about to begin," she wrote. The current version of the ETRM lists ODF and Adobe Systems' Portable Document Format as acceptable open formats for state agencies.

Ecma's general assembly voted 20-1 to approve Open XML as a standard, with IBM the lone holdout. The Geneva-based group now plans to submit the Microsoft format on a fast-track basis to the larger ISO standards organization, which officially published an ODF standard on Nov. 30.

In advance of Ecma's vote, Novell said on Monday that it would add Open XML support to its version of OpenOffice. Corel made a similar announcement last week, saying it would fully support both ODF and OpenXML in its WordPerfect software after leaning toward ODF before.

Neither IBM nor Sun Microsystems would comment on whether they plan to adopt Open XML in their desktop suites. IBM's Workplace and Sun's StarOffice use ODF as a default but also support Microsoft's older Office formats.

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